Exploitation of the Moss begins
In early medieval times, persistence of the Mercian wildwood round the Mosses lessened the need for peat as fuel. The earliest records of peat cutting, from the 1570s, list local rights to “flae, draw, wheele, reare, windrow, repayre, rucke and stack turves”. Sales of peat outside the Manor grew only after the 1650s.
The Mosses belonged to the Lords of the Manors, the Hills in England and the Hanmers in Wales. Local opposition in 1704 staunched their attempt to enclose Whixall Moss by agreement, and only outer areas were drained and improved. In 1777 Fenn’s and Bettisfield Mosses, and in 1823 Whixall Moss, were enclosed by Parliamentary Enclosure Acts. Common rights were extinguished, and blocks of Mossland allocated to specific householders and the Lords of the Manors. The drains marking out each allocation caused the collapse of the massive dome of the bog.
The Hanmer family later rented their allocation of most of Fenn’s Moss to a succession of commercial peat-cutting firms (and now to CCW), whereas Sir John Hill, followed by the Wardles, rented the smaller centre of Whixall Moss to local families on an “acre by acre” basis, for domestic and small-scale commercial peat cutting.
An aerial view clearly contrasts the winding pre-enclosure lanes around the Moss, the landscape of small straight-edged post-enclosure fields and tracks on the north and south of the peat, the rabbit warren of the hand-cuttings on Whixall Moss and the regular commercial cuttings of Fenn’s Moss.
Barges, bogies, bombs and bullets
Large-scale commercial exploitation of the Mosses had to await the arrival of the canal then the railway, to take cut peat to market.
The Llangollen Canal was cut through the Mosses from 1801 until 1804. Now it
stands proud of the bog, which has subsided because of peat cutting. Until the
mid 1960s eight men were continually employed to build up its clay banks as they
sank into the peat.
The Oswestry, Ellesmere and Whitchurch Railway Company laid a railway across two and a half miles of Fenn’s Moss from Fenn’s Bank to Cornhill on the north-facing slope of the Moss. A layer of heather, superseded by bundles of birch faggots, timbers and then sand, supported the lines. Opened in April 1863, the line became part of the Cambrian Railway Co. in 1864, and Great Western in 1922; it was closed in 1963 by Dr Beeching. Peat cutters burned their cutting areas in winter to protect their stacked peat from summer wildfires caused by trains.
The Mosses have remains of ten rifle ranges, the earliest preceding World War 1. Cutting peat for fuel and horse bedding was a reserved occupation during the wars. Bogmoss was also used as a sterile wound dressing. In World War 2, N E Fenn’s Moss was a practice incendiary bombing range. Machine gun practice targeted a cut-out train on the peat railway, and a strategic ‘starfish’ decoy site, where peat would be set alight, was intended to divert German bombers from Liverpool.
How the Mosses were nearly lost
Ironically peat cutting saved the Mosses’ bog wildlife. Nearby Baggy Moor, an equally large raised bog, and the southern third of the Mosses have been totally converted to agriculture.
A succession of commercial peat firms cut Fenn’s Moss from 1851 until the Mosses were rescued for wildlife conservation in December 1990.
The Moulded Peat Charcoal Co. (1860 –1864), exporting peat by canal, the Bettisfield Trust Co (1923 – 1925) and the 1930s Black Firm, abortively tried to distil and make peat briquettes from ‘black’ fen peat, but only firms cutting ‘white’ peat for ‘litter’, animal bedding, packing and animal feed succeeded.
From 1888 to 1915, the English Peat Moss Litter Co. extracted peat on horse-drawn trams to the Shed Yard Works, then mainline railway at Fenn’s Bank Tile Works. In 1889 the Moss Cottages were built for their workers.
A Works, on the site of the current Fenn’s Old Works, superseded the World War 1 military factory on the railway line. Built after a fire in 1938, the Fenn’s Old Works holds the last 110 hp National diesel engine left in situ in Britain. This powered milling and baling machinery for peat drawn off the Moss by the 1919 munitions locomotive on the 2-foot narrow-gauge railway. In the 1920s the Midland Moss Litter Company (1923 – 1962) cut the Fenn’s Moss Main Drain and a regular system of Dutch flats and drains, which caused the collapse of Fenn’s Moss.
The L. S. Becket Company bought Whixall Moss in 1956 and its director Herbert Allmark acquired the lease of Fenn’s Moss in 1962. Dexta tractors carried peat to the Manor House Works for distribution by road. From 1968 a peat-cutting machine increased the rate of extraction from the 1000 acres of Fenn’s Moss from around 10 hectares (25 acres) per year to around 30 ha (75 acres), but even so bog wildlife could survive on unworked areas.
However, after a fourfold rental increase, in 1989 Croxden Horticultural Products took over, working 140 ha (350 acres) per year and opening up old drains on a further 120 ha (300 acres). The Mossland wildlife was laid waste.
There was a national outcry amongst conservationists and in 1990, the Nature
Conservancy Council bought the company out. All mechanised peat cutting was
stopped and hand cutting is being phased out.
Where have all the raised bogs gone?
Globally, lowland raised bogs are confined to the fringe of north-west Europe. Of Britain’s 1.4 million hectares ( 3.5 million acres) of bog peat, only 5% lies in raised bogs. Over half of this is in England, giving us a special responsibility for conserving this part of our world’s biodiversity.
Unfortunately, in Britain, less than 6% of our raised mires now support good mire vegetation. The rest has been lost to agriculture, forestry, tipping, development and peat cutting. In England every raised bog has been damaged. Wales has little raised bog peat. Ireland has only 6% left relatively intact, Denmark less than 2%, and Holland, Germany and Poland less than 1%.
Consequently raised bog creatures are often rare. Many species on the Mosses are so uncommon now that they have been given legal protection, including water vole, common lizard, adder, large heath butterfly and fourteen species of raptors and waders. Half of the Mosses’ rarest insect species have disappeared over the last 25 years of peat cutting.
Some raised bogs have been designated as SSSIs to help to protect them, but continuous exploitation of many bogs means carbon dioxide stored in peat is released, adding to global warming.
Europe has charged each nation that has raised bogs to conserve and protect 10,000 ha of this rare and threatened habitat. In Britain only 5375 ha remain in reasonable condition, so the government has chosen several of the largest sites including the Mosses for repair.